Cow Eye Animal Life (New York State Fair 2014)


The New York State Fair’s done and gone, but I’m sorting through some old pictures. I stopped at the cowshed for awhile. I like the mute, uncomprehending, and gentle look and the little nick right under the eye. The cows show very little interest in us.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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8 Responses to Cow Eye Animal Life (New York State Fair 2014)

  1. Gail says:

    Don’t you know how to talk to the animals, Zachary?

  2. donovanschaefer says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the affective membrane that rises when we confront other animal bodies and how their affective response–usually fear–shapes our theory of of animal subjectivities. I think we tend to see wild animals at moments when they are most cautious, withdrawn, and inhibited (when they see our bodies and are trying to avoid drawing extra attention to themselves) rather than when they are joyful, playful, or unihibited, and so we conclude that their joy in life is shallow at best.

    Farm animals are another story in that their bodies absorb regimes of discipline–usually driven by pain and terror–that leave them bewildered, docile, and depressed.

    • zjb says:

      But are they depressed, or, pardon the pun, just cowed. I like the comment about domestic animals absorbing regimes of discipline. But a lot of these cows spend time out grazing, so it’s a bit different these smaller scale dairies, I think, then the industrial farms and dairies.

      • donovanschaefer says:

        Animal bodies need more than just food–they need companionship and mobility, just as humans do, and an oscillation between stability (no abrupt forced changes of location) and novelty (no sustained periods of confinement/immobility). I don’t think it’s wrong to speculate that depression is a product of the disciplinary practices most farm animals suffer through, even for the 1% or so raised on small farms (though I take your point that the brutal agony of the factory farm system is far worse).

        Great point about the word “cowed”–never thought about that before, but that’s exactly what it means: a defeating regime of discipline that produces a particular kind of despondence.

      • zjb says:

        For what it’s worth, one of the things that always strikes me at the Fair is the enormous attention, the care and even solicitude paid to the animals by the farmer-families as they feed, groom, milk, and clean them. One could add the way the animals mill together (particularly the goats, sheep, and lamas). It feels like sympathy, but I’m sure I’m projecting. At any rate, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t call their condition at the Fair stressed or distressed. The signs of such stress would be too visible, which would defeat the entire purpose of the fair for the domestic livestock people, which is to show the animals in public for prize and profit.

  3. donovanschaefer says:

    It’s not wrong to say that there’s a relationship between the farmer families and the animals which I would agree is probably healing and nurturing for the animals. But the animals are pre-disciplined by the time we see them–the violence and trauma (separation from conspecific companions/family members and displacement, e.g.) that produced that docility is invisible to us. And distress doesn’t necessarily manifest as bodies going haywire–it can also manifest as emotional numbness, immobility, disinterest, and detachment, which is exactly what I see when I look at this image.

    • zjb says:

      This is what’s so interesting. As a close up of an eye, the photo provides no further visual information with which to interpret it. What struck me as soon as I took and reviewed the image was a look that I could only interpret as “sad” “gentle” or “dumb.” Very mammalian, as opposed to some shots of chickens that I photographed last year, where the birds looked “dumb” and “aggressive.” About the distress, I think if the cows really were distressed that they’s be quite unmanageable. But what does a New Yorker from Baltimore know about animal life? Not much indeed.

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